From time to time I come across references by the credulous to the supposed biblical roots of some Chinese characters. I was surprised to learn, however, that that manner of interpretation has been around for many years.
Even the early Jesuit Fathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom we owe so much for pioneer work in the domain of Sinology, were not without occasional lapses of the kind, due no doubt to a laudable if excessive zeal. Finding the character 船, which is the common word for “a ship,” as indicated by 舟, the earlier picture-character for “boat” seen on the left-hand side, one ingenious Father proceeded to analyse it as follows: —
舟 “ship,” 八 “eight,” 口 “mouth” = eight mouths on a ship—“the Ark.”
But the right-hand portion is merely the phonetic of the character; it was originally 铅 “lead,” which gave the sound required; then the indicator “boat” was substituted for “metal.”
So with the word 禁 “to prohibit.” Because it could be analysed into two 木木 “trees” and 示 “a divine proclamation,” an allusion was discovered therein to the two trees and the proclamation of the Garden of Eden; whereas again the proper analysis is into indicator and phonetic.
Nor is such misplaced ingenuity confined to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1892 a Protestant missionary published and circulated broadcast what he said was “evidence in favour of the Gospels,” being nothing less than a prophecy of Christ’s coming hidden in the Chinese character 來 “to come.” He pointed out that this was composed of “a cross,” with two 人人 ‘men,’ one on each side, and a ‘greater man’ 人 in the middle.
That analysis is all very well for the character as it stands now; but before the Christian era this same character was written and was a picture, not of men and of a cross, but of a sheaf of corn. It came to mean “come,” says the Chinese etymologist, “because corn comes from heaven.”
Even if all the character etymologies Giles cites are not necessarily in keeping with modern scholarship, his principles here are correct.